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Disability, Sex Radicalism, And Political Agency

Disability, Sex Radicalism, And Political Agency

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Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency

ABBY WILKERSON This paper uses queer and disability perspectives to argue that sexual agency is central to political agency, and that a group’s experience of sexually-based harms and constraints on sexual agency should be recognized as a hallmark of oppression. It explores the political implications of erotophobia as it affects oppressed groups, the role of sexual shame in oppression based on sexuality and gender, and medical constructions of the sexuality of people with disabilities and others. The use of counterdiscourses and coalition politics is proposed as one strategy for overcoming the corrosive effects of erotophobia on oppressed groups and their sexual/political agency. Keywords: disability / erotophobia / medicalization / pathologization / political agency / sex radicalism / sexual agency / sexuality Beneath the moral stigmas attached to pathologized bodies lies fear: the fear of bodily alteration, and even death itself—and to the extent that the singular human body represents the body politic, the fear of social upheaval and chaos, the loss of all social order. Medical discourse has become one of the most powerful means of assuaging such fears by diagnosing and managing the bodily chaos indicative of social disorder. Because of its basis in biomedical science, medical discourse is presumed to be inherently objective and therefore an authoritative source of truth; because it represents the healing face of science and technology, its truths and their applications are presumed to be inherently benevolent. Sexuality, for all its uses in advertising, entertainment media, and other capitalist enterprises, is nonetheless a culturally feared aspect of the body, with especially serious implications for those whose bodies are perceived as falling outside a fairly narrow and rigid norm. Just as homosexuality, long considered an illness, was treated for years with drugs, castration, hypnotherapy, psychoanalysis, and aversion therapy, people with various kinds of disabilities have also faced medical denial of their sexualities.1 A man and a woman who had spent many years living in an institution for people with epilepsy wanted to marry, and requested permission of a doctor at the institution. They were told “that they could get married, but they were not allowed to have sex” (Fegan, Rauch, and McCarthy 1993, 48). Those with cognitive disabilities have also been subjected to aversive therapies designed to stop behavior perceived as unnatural and otherwise inappropriate. A parent interviewed for this 1993 volume Sexuality and People with Intellectual Disability

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mentions a young boy living in an institution who masturbated in the presence of others “by rubbing his thighs together when sitting down. So the staff at the institution attached sandpaper to the insides of his thighs” (9). Women with motor impairment also face medical obstacles to sexuality. Women with spinal cord injuries report being denied birth control by their doctors in a manner that suggests their sexual lives are over. Chris, who was paraplegic, had many questions during her initial sevenmonth hospitalization. When she asked about birth control pills, a nurse reported to her the doctor’s response: “he said no because it would make you [Chris] bloat. Then he said you could just stick the pill between your knees and say no” (Becker 1978, 117). Elle Becker, also a paraplegic, had a similar experience: “About four days after I broke my back I asked my surgeon, ‘I don’t have my birth control pills with me. Is there something we can do about that?’ He said ‘Well, you don’t need those anymore,’ and walked out of my room” (255). More recently, the Washington Post reported that American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) shut down traffic at two locations in Washington, DC, protesting the lack of attendant services which forces many people with disabilities into nursing homes (Fahrenthold 2000). What the Washington Post did not report was the failure of most nursing homes to respect residents’ privacy and the resulting constraints on their sexual options—surely newsworthy in the U.S. city with the highest concentration of young people in nursing homes.2 Sexuality is a vital means of pleasure, interpersonal connection, personal efficacy, and acceptance of one’s body and of self more generally, all goods which might be especially useful to disabled persons in nursing homes. Furthermore, because one’s autonomy is already compromised by residing in a nursing home, the violation of both sexual agency and personal security imposed by this loss of privacy should be recognized as a serious harm which needs to be rectified. It must be understood, however, that medical authority over sexuality is not limited to such extreme cases. Medical discourse has a much broader socially recognized power that, even in its gentler manifestations, is nonetheless insidious in its ability to shape not merely our sexual options but a sense of ourselves as sexual beings, and ultimately our very identities for ourselves and others. Even—and perhaps especially—when this authority is used in benevolent ways, it accords the medical profession and related institutions an increasingly influential form of political power, which is too seldom acknowledged. Ann, a bisexual whose spinal cord was damaged in infancy, recognizes medical authority to reflect and reinforce cultural norms when she reviews the medical literature on sexuality in women with spinal problems and states, “I . . . find most of it is inadequate, condescending, restricted to the traditional middle class married view of sex, [and] still inherently

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male oriented (how to please the almighty male)” (Becker 1978, 112–3). Narelle, a woman with intellectual disability, states, “I left home when I was twenty-nine years old. I had a lot of pressure from my parents not to leave—I wanted to get married. I asked the doctor if I could get married because I had met a nice young man I wanted to marry” (Fegan, Rauch, and McCarthy 1993, 39–40). Her experience reflects the widespread social reliance on medical discourse as a source of moral, not merely scientific, information. The challenge to the medical profession and to related institutions is to become self-critical of discursive practices in the field that undermine the status and the self-regard of particular groups. The challenge for society as a whole is to bear witness to these practices, and to intervene in them. These stories illustrate the political urgency of a radical politics of sex grounded in the experiences of all those groups who are most socially marginalized. Any public articulation of sexuality as an aspect of life to which everyone should be entitled, still remains almost unthinkable within mainstream discourse. Even less recognized is the strategic value of sexual stereotyping and other sexual harms as a significant force in perpetuating the inequality of any oppressed group. I contend, therefore, that sexual democracy should be recognized as a key political struggle, not only because of the importance of the basic human right to sexual autonomy, but also because (as I will argue) a group’s sexual status tends to reflect and reinforce its broader political and social status. I understand sexual agency not merely as the capacity to choose, engage in, or refuse sex acts, but as a more profound good which is in many ways socially based, involving not only a sense of oneself as a sexual being, but also a larger social dimension in which others recognize and respect one’s identity. We need a better understanding of the relationships between sexual agency and democracy. Sexuality must not be construed as one of many pursuits in life—like stamp collecting, bungee-jumping, or orchid growing—in which autonomy, understood as a political good, affords one the freedom to make individual choices. Rather, we should consider whether sexual agency is far more central to political agency than has generally been acknowledged so far. In my view, the socially based aspects of sexual agency constitute a hierarchy in which those who are most socially privileged on various axes of social difference (including sexual orientation along with race, class, age, and gender expression, among others) are, other factors being equal, most likely to be considered respectable, and therefore worthy citizens. As I will discuss shortly, if sexual deviance is understood entirely in terms of unorthodox sexual desires and practices, this obscures the impact of other axes of social difference on sexual identities of all groups, as well as sexual oppression related even to orthodox sexual practices and desires of heterosexual women. Many recognize that sexuality, as sexual identity, is one among a

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variety of axes of oppression, along with gender, race, class, and others. Feminists have also long viewed sexuality as one of several domains of experience in which women are disempowered; for radical feminists, it is the key domain that structures women’s oppression. These lines of analysis have been enormously productive, and have generated a great deal of healthy contention. What I wish to explore, however, is the role of sexuality in oppression more generally, and the relationship between sexual agency and political agency. History has provided us with repeated instances of efforts to constrain the political agency of social dissidents through efforts to constrain their sexual agency or to depict them as sexual deviants. The Comstock Act of 1873 is an excellent example.3 “It is no accident,” writes public health professor Lynn P. Freedman, “that the public hysteria about sexuality stoked by the Comstock crusades followed the beginnings of the modern U.S. women’s movement, which included among its central planks the advocacy of ‘voluntary motherhood’ and, somewhat later, of contraception itself” (1999, 157). The period in which these laws were enforced involved unprecedented social change, characterized by “growing labor unrest, the rise of socialist and anarchist movements . . . an increasingly vocal feminist movement . . . [and] huge waves of immigration” (157). Another time of social and political upheaval was the civil rights era, which also saw the beginnings of the second wave of the women’s movement. Objections to these movements also sometimes took the form of sexual moralizing or warnings. White Southerner Minnie Bruce Pratt recalls,
My father called me to his chair in the living room. He showed me a newspaper clipping, from some right-wing paper, about Martin Luther King, Jr.; and told me that the article was about how King had sexually abused, used, young Black teen-aged girls. I believe he asked me what I thought of this; I can only guess that he wanted me to feel that my danger, my physical, sexual, danger, would be the result of the release of others from containment. I felt frightened and profoundly endangered, by King, by my father. (1984, 36–7)

When social dissent thus becomes recast as sexual danger, a threat made to seem far more potent than the shortcomings of the status quo, it is not difficult to see how political agency is undermined at the same time. While the relevance of queer theory for investigating the political dimensions of sexual agency should be clear, the role of disability studies in this context may be less well understood. Queer perspectives have helped us to understand and resist regimes organized around controlling a variety of sexual identities and practices. Disability perspectives reveal the broad array of cultural norms which privilege an illusory ideal mind and body at the expense of our actual bodies of all shapes and sizes, which are subject to a host of contingencies and are all too fragile, yet capable

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of a vast array of thoughts, movements. Together, queer and disability perspectives help to reveal why sexual agency must be understood as an important, and in some ways, key component of the liberation struggles of all disenfranchised groups, rather than a luxury to be addressed after achieving goals that might be perceived as more basic. Working toward this end not only requires disability studies to engage in sustained dialogue with the critical framework of sex radicalism, but also with feminism and critical race theory in order to understand how sexual hierarchies are always simultaneously gendered and racialized. It also requires serious critical engagement with the ageism that renders both youth and the elderly as less than fully human, and the infantilization that denies agency to adult members of some groups, such as people with disabilities. All of these politically engaged critical frameworks help to illuminate the ways in which marginalized groups come to be perceived as deviant bodies; how actual or perceived differences in these bodies are taken as demonstrating particular forms of inferiority; and how these associations become articulated in the pathologized erotic “natures” attributed to each group. It is not surprising that queer and disability movements have displayed similarly flamboyant and defiant political and aesthetic sensibilities (as indicated by the Not Dead Yet disability action group or the Diseased Pariah newsletter created by gay men living with AIDS). First, I will look at one of the founding documents of queer theory, assessing its relevance for current and future conjunctions of disability studies, queer theory, and other frameworks. I will go on to examine the political implications of erotophobia as it affects oppressed groups more generally, then take up the role of sexual shame in oppression based on sexuality and gender, and return to medical constructions of the sexuality of people with disabilities and others. Finally, I will consider the important role of counter-discourses and coalition politics in a movement for inclusive sexual liberation.

Sexual Democracy, Feminism, and Erotophobia
Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” which first appeared in 1984, is widely regarded as providing both the impetus and the justification for queer theory (1993). In this piece, Rubin attempts to lay the groundwork for a “democratic morality” of sex (15), “challeng[ing] the assumption that feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality” (32). The concept of sexual perversion, for example, is in her view a cultural judgment whose operations are not reducible to those associated with the cultural categories of gender. Rubin contends that

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Sex is a vector of oppression. The system of sexual oppression cuts across other modes of social inequality, sorting out individuals and groups according to its own intrinsic dynamics. It is not reducible to, or understandable in terms of, class, race, ethnicity, or gender. Wealth, white skin, male gender, and ethnic privileges can mitigate the effects of sexual stratification. A rich, white male pervert will generally be less affected than a poor, black, female pervert. But even the most privileged are not immune to sexual oppression. (22)

Rubin concludes, “In the long run, feminism’s critique of gender hierarchy must be incorporated into a radical theory of sex, and the critique of sexual oppression should enrich feminism. But an autonomous theory and politics of sexuality specific to sexuality must be developed” (34). I think Rubin is correct in claiming that feminism cannot be the “privileged site of a theory of sexuality” (32)—that is, that sexual oppression is not finally reducible to gender oppression, even though the two are generally intertwined in various ways. This important insight (which at one time surely startled many feminists, myself included) allows for the recognition of sexual oppression as it affects many groups, an insight which could be (and to a limited degree has been) very fruitful for feminism at the same time. However, conceptualizing sexual politics as autonomous overlooks the multi-faceted, interactive nature of oppression. Instead, I would like to suggest a conceptualization of sexual oppression as an integral aspect of the oppression experienced by any group. Rubin is certainly correct that “a rich, white male pervert will generally be less affected [by sexual stratification] than a poor, black, female pervert” (22), but what also needs to be addressed is that to be constituted as poor, black, and female in this society means already being a pervert, with one’s sexuality constructed as inherently disorderly, even dangerous, in need of monitoring by others (Roberts 1997). As I hope to illustrate, being considered other in any way almost always renders an individual or group’s sexuality socially problematic, which itself should be considered a hallmark of oppression. Sexual democracy, then, will require not only opposing the political forces that stigmatize some sexualities as perversions, but also dismantling oppressive social relations including racism, ableism, capitalism, sexism, and ageism which cause some groups’ sexuality to be scrutinized in the first place. To be sure, other vectors of oppression than gender have been taken up within feminism for some time now, thanks to women of color and others who challenged the exclusionary nature of “hegemonic feminism” (Sandoval 1991). For as Barbara Smith noted in the closing session of the 1979 NWSA conference, “Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement” (qtd. in Moraga and

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Anzaldúa 1981, 61). This recognition that feminism itself provides the ground for a multi-faceted analysis of, and response to, oppression has met with a great deal of resistance, especially from white middle-class heterosexual feminists who mistakenly believed they could speak “as women” and for all women (Alarcón 1990; Spelman 1988). Lesbian feminist Minnie Bruce Pratt writes of the complex process by which she began to recognize her own racial and class privilege, and its coexistence with her oppression in other respects. She was forced to re-examine her own place in the world, and the place of others, when coming out as a lesbian stripped her of the “protection” extended to her as a white Southern married (read “good and pure”) woman. If Pratt’s lesbianism brought the loss of both a “protection” (which she came to see as control) and a moral innocence (later revealed as ignorance) that had seemed hers by birthright, it was also the force that motivated her to undergo a painful transformation:
I am trying to speak from my heart, out of need, as a woman who loves other women passionately, and wants us to be able to be together as friends in this unjust world; and as a woman who lives in relative security in the United States, and who is trying to figure out my responsibility and my need in struggles against injustice in a way that will lead to our friendship. (1984, 15)

Pratt “set out to find out what had been or was being done in my [her] name” (35), focusing initially on a regional history that included Klan marches and lynchings, and a familial history that included slave ownership, before eventually turning to current U.S. military interventions, “protection” on an international scale, and the place of the military build-up in the U.S. economy. In this process, the illusion of her good standing in the world, and the rightness of many features of that world, was destroyed. Ultimately, Pratt rejects narrow notions of womanhood and the politics that derive from them, while noting how privileged women may lose a (false) sense of self, yet stand to gain in opposing social hierarchies other than those based on gender. For example, she notes, “The real gain in our material security as white women would come most surely if we did not limit our economic struggle to salaries of equal or comparable worth to white men in the U.S., but if we expanded this struggle to a restructuring of this country’s economy so that we do not live off the lives and work of Third World women” (55). Thus, Pratt exemplifies a sense of feminism expanded beyond early notions of gender as both independent variable and ultimate influence in women’s lives. Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana lesbian and Tejana, writes from her vantage point as a multiple border dweller:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian

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I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and the planet. (1987, 80–1)

For Anzaldúa, as for Pratt, lesbianism and feminism, as well as her mestiza identity, are the ground of an inclusive politics that rejects narrow conceptions of identity in favor of a complex notion of oppression, privilege, and resistance. In her version of mestizaje, Anzaldúa finds an opportunity to see and move beyond reductive cultural boundaries and categories. While these theorists, in the company of many others, have worked to move feminism beyond earlier notions of gender as trump card, such important insights for feminism and other efforts to undermine oppression have not resulted in any general awareness of sexual harms as a link connecting many oppressed groups. Cultural erotophobia is a likely factor in the failure to recognize this commonality, as I hope to demonstrate in this article. Locating herself within the “sexual unorthodoxy,” which includes the recent body of queer theory, cultural studies scholar Cindy Patton defines erotophobia in the following way:
the terrifying, irrational reaction to the erotic which makes individuals and society vulnerable to psychological and social control in cultures where pleasure is strictly categorized and regulated. Each component of sexuality— sexual practice, desire, and sexual identity—constitutes a particular type of relationship between the individual and society, providing gripping opportunities for different forms of erotophobic repression. (1985, 103)

Patton uses this concept primarily in a discussion of social policies and sexual politics, but she also extends it to the politics of medical knowledge. Erotophobia (like homophobia) involves not only explicit declarations of pathology, but also other practices and attitudes that more subtly reflect cultural taboos against sexual practices, desires, and identities. Michael Warner argues that erotophobia is an even more fundamental cultural value than the hierarchy of sexual deviance might suggest: it is not merely unorthodox sexuality but sex itself that is the problem. “It might as well be admitted,” he says, “that sex is a disgrace . . . the possibility of abject shame is never entirely out of the picture” (1999, 2). He notes that it is quite possible for deeply erotophobic attitudes to coexist with overtly sexualized environments, as in the United States, where it is difficult to get through the day without being bombarded by sexualized images in advertising and entertainment. Erotophobic attitudes are manifested in “thousands of ways for people to govern the sex of others . . .

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directly, through prohibition and regulation, and indirectly, by embracing one identity or one set of tastes as though they were universally shared, or should be” (1). Warner’s recognition of the fundamental shamefulness of sex provides a useful jumping-off point for exploring the intersection of erotophobic judgments and prohibitions with other cultural practices that stigmatize and otherwise harm members of oppressed groups. In recent years, important work has been done to expose the sexual stereotyping to which various groups have been subjected (and I will turn to examples of this shortly). The limitation of this work is that it has largely been carried out in reference to one group at a time. Surprisingly, it is seldom noted that oppressed groups generally tend to share the experience of being particularly subject to erotophobic judgments of their sexual behaviors or “natures,” restrictions against practices associated with them, sexual violence and harassment, and other constraints on their sexuality. If sexual harms, including stereotyping, are one of the hallmarks of oppression, then cultural associations of a group with specific sexual tendencies or ways of being are (for all but the most privileged) connected to significant material and psychological harms inflicted on its members differentially. This suggests, furthermore, that erotophobia is a central tool of inequality. While these sexual images and harms, and their political significance for particular groups, have received a great deal of attention, their connection to one another and their status as a hallmark of oppression have not. The perspectives of feminism, queer theory, disability studies, and critical race theory are among those which now make it possible as well as strategically important to begin an analysis which would connect each group’s sexual oppression to that of other groups, while attending carefully to the specifics of each group’s experiences, sexual images, and their relation to material practices. Cultural erotophobia is not merely a general taboo against open discussions of sexuality, and displays of sexual behavior, but a very effective means of creating and maintaining social hierarchies, not only those of sexuality, but those of gender, race, class, age, and physical and mental ability.

Cultural Erotophobia and Oppressed Groups
The experience of powerlessness is a central aspect of oppression, and strikingly evident in the context of sexuality. According to political philosopher Iris Young, power in contemporary U.S. society resides at least in part in the social norm of “respectability” associated with the middle and upper classes (1990). In the arena of sexuality, I understand powerlessness in terms of interference with the sexual agency of an individual, constituted as a member of a particular social group. Oppressed groups

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differentially face restrictions, penalties, and coercion, and are denied access to important information, all in relation to their sexuality. The “erotic segregation” imposed by social taboos on interracial relationships may exert less power than was formerly the case, yet it continues to separate racial and cultural groups, limit individuals’ sexual agency, and stigmatize those couples who defy the taboo (Twine 2002). While some of the following examples may be familiar as indications of a particular group’s status and well-being, their place in the larger pattern I am drawing is worthy of new attention. Feminists, of course, are quite familiar with sexuality as a ground of oppression, having brought social attention to a variety of problems women face in this area, such as young women’s elevated risk of sexual assault and abuse over that of all other groups. And it is feminists who have noted that “protection” for young women is more likely to involve coercive or paternalistic measures such as restrictions on abortion through parental consent or notification provisions, rather than serious efforts to transform the rape culture which targets young women. At the time of this writing, President Bush is seeking a $33 million increase in funding for abstinence-only education (surely we can’t call this “sex education”), which will make it more difficult for young women (and men) to make responsible, informed decisions and avoid pregnancy, HIV, and sexually-transmitted diseases (Center for Reproductive Law and Policy 2002). What we should also notice is the striking correlations between the experiences of people with disabilities and other groups who have been treated as if their sexualities exceed the bounds of respectability. Many people with disabilities, whether physical or cognitive, have been and continue to be sterilized without their consent, or under less than fully voluntary conditions, as have poor women, especially those of color.4 Feminists as well as disability and antiracism activists have not only opposed coercive sterilization as a violation of individual rights, but have expressed their uneasiness with the genocidal implications of the practice. The hypersexualized image of African American and Latino men is by now all too familiar, subjecting them historically and in the present to a range of sanctions, including hate crimes such as lynching, criminal penalties for consensual sex (miscegenation laws), and higher conviction rates and stricter sentencing for sex crimes such as rape (hooks 1992). Such images continue to flourish all too easily. News coverage of the sexual assaults after New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade a year ago frequently relied on “racist notions of men of color as animalistic predators,” and, as Jennifer Pozner points out, tended to focus “on the few white women victimized in the park, while sidelining the experiences and voices of women of color—even though black and Latina women

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suffered the majority of assaults” (2001, 15). People with developmental disabilities have also been regarded as hypersexual, and in some cases as predators of (nondisabled) children, or as inherently and inevitably victimized—but in any case as possessing a sexuality requiring monitoring and control by others. These cases sharply contrast with the “boys will be boys” attitude which often characterizes cultural views of the normative white middle-class heterosexual male’s sexual behavior (Midzian 1991). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face a well-known array of legal obstacles to sexual agency, of which sodomy laws and legislation restricting marriage and its benefits to heterosexuals are just the beginning. People with cognitive disabilities often face obstacles to marriage and various aspects of sexual agency as well; marriage is still illegal for people with mental retardation in some states, despite the many couples that have functioned successfully with this disability. Another barrier is access to information. Parents, educators, politicians, and librarians deprive queer youth of power by denying them access to information, as reflected in a host of legal battles over sex education curricula, as well as debates over Internet decency standards and restricting access to various materials in libraries.5 Similar obstacles to information apply for people with cognitive impairments—in part due to the perception that, like queers, they are all too capable of being sexual creatures—and for those with physical disabilities, because supposedly they are asexual, yet in need of protection from others. The message to a young person marginalized based on sexual identity, disability, or both: your sexuality—a fundamental aspect of personhood—is inappropriate. One reason for this denial of sexuality is that regardless of their age, people with intellectual disabilities are considered children, incapable of forming substantive life preferences, learning the skills necessary to negotiate sexual choices, or making meaningful decisions in general. The vast majority of intellectually disabled people is “only mildly disabled and [has] the potential to lead largely independent lives” (Fegan, Rauch, and McCarthy 1993, 18). They have demonstrated their ability to respond to sexual counseling that is nonjudgmental; affirms a range of sexual choices in relation to an individual’s own values; and utilizes techniques designed for a variety of cognitive abilities about how to weigh consequences, recognize various options for satisfying one’s desires, negotiate activities with others, and avoid unsafe or nonconsensual sex. Similar principles apply to issues such as menstruation, contraception, and reproduction. I do not want to minimize the complex, challenging issues at stake in sexual education for cognitively disabled people, but rather to highlight both the possibility and the moral necessity of an approach that respects their sexual agency as a basic aspect of human dignity. (Moreover, similar considerations apply for people with physical disabilities, who have no difficulty understanding sexual information but are none-

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theless infantilized in ways that also contribute to their desexualization [Clare 1999, 103–22; Finger 1985, 302; Thomson 1997, 285]). Because of the belief that homosexual acts cannot be the result of rational choice, nondisabled queer youth are also treated as if their sexual orientations and sexual behaviors, unlike those of (nondisabled) heterosexual youth, do not reflect meaningful or legitimate choices or decisions in any way.6 Thus, they too are seen as needing protection from themselves. Yet in every case, people should have access to the kind of counseling I have described, in a manner appropriate to their individual circumstances and intellectual capacity, so that they can make pleasurable and responsible decisions for themselves with the support of adults. For young people (and some adults), both queerness and disability heighten vulnerability to violence and harassment, which is compounded by the failure of institutions (schools, medical staff, hospitals, nursing homes) and families to protect them, and an increased risk of being victimized at home.7 For queer youth, these harms are overtly attached to their stigmatized sexuality or unconventional gender identity, while the victimization of people with disabilities, especially women, often takes sexual forms. Information designed to foster sexual agency is vitally important for queer and disabled youth in order to promote self-respect, pleasure, and safety in every sense of the word. Far too often, however, information about sexuality is treated as dangerous in itself, perhaps even a cause of victimization, while the social powerlessness that marks members of these groups as vulnerable targets gets little attention.

Sexual Shame, Femininity, and Political Agency
One Saturday morning on the George Washington University campus, a young woman exits Adams Hall after spending the night in a young man’s room. Whether this was a night of pleasure for her, or something else, her return to her own dorm is known in campus parlance as “The Walk of Shame”—a locution somehow never applied to his journey back to his room if he stays with her. The notion of shame, and the basis of shame in sexuality, figures prominently in Sandra Bartky’s (1990) account of patriarchal domination as well as in Michael Warner’s account of queer oppression and politics (1999). For both theorists, shame is not so much a psychological state of individuals as such (even though it may shape individual subjectivity), but rather a socially based harm which oppressed groups are subject to in particular ways. The picture of queer oppression emerging from The Trouble with Normal involves the overt stigmatization of unorthodox sexual practices, desires, and identities through such means as sodomy laws, the restric-

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tion of marriage to heterosexuals, medical pathologization of queerness, overt moral proscriptions against queerness, and a broad array of cultural practices (Warner 1999). This stigma results in a profound shame (and here I’m using this term in a slightly different way than Warner) with significant political implications. Shame is deployed as a “political resourc[e] that some people use to silence or isolate others” (12), and sexual deviants are considered a “danger to the body politic” (19). Because of the extreme stigma associated with queerness, one becomes alienated from one’s own sexuality. Warner argues that what he calls the “official queer movement” has attempted to overcome this shame and alienation through a bid for respectability, pursued through such means as the campaign for gay marriage (and one might also add the failure of some of these organizations to include transgender concerns in their efforts). Such efforts are misguided, according to Warner, because they fail to address the fundamental problem of marriage as an official enforcement of the hierarchy of sexual deviance, creating a two-class system in which the conventional sexuality of the monogamous couple (whether straight or gay) is upheld as the fundamental unit of society, at the expense of unconventional family units and those who are not monogamous or whose sexuality is unconventional in other ways. In short, the norm of respectability reinforces unjust social hierarchies. As Bartky’s Femininity and Domination indicates, shame and alienation connected to sexuality are similarly fundamental constituents of subjectivity for heterosexual women, through a variety of means (1990). One aspect of femininity is attractiveness to the male gaze, a norm that involves women in a lifelong project against the forces of chaos, and imposes “what is in effect a prohibition or a taboo on the development of her other human capacities. In our society, for example, the cultivation of intellect has made a woman not more but less sexually alluring” (42). The affective dimension of femininity as nurturance that is central to the behavioral and psychological norms of heterosexuality mandates continual care for the feelings and general well-being of men and children. This activity requires a relinquishing of epistemic and ethical agency (which includes the ability to recognize and act on behalf of one’s own interests). In terms of sexual practice and identity, Bartky notes that “sexual objectification is one way of fi xing disadvantaged persons in their disadvantage” (27), and recognizes a colonized sexual imagination as one of the destructive consequences of patriarchal domination (60). All of these aspects of femininity, which are tied to heterosexuality, involve alienation as estrangement from oneself, one’s humanity, and one’s interests. In terms of shame, heterosexual women’s situation differs from that of queers in significant ways. Because supposedly there is nothing “abnormal” in being a woman, at least not in any way that is explicitly acknowledged, unlike the case of queerness, the social causes of heterosexual

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women’s shame and alienation are far less clear and overt, subjecting them to murkiness and contradiction. Moreover, while queer desire exists in clear opposition to the norm of heterosexuality, cultural forces influence heterosexual women to desire the very norms of femininity that dehumanize women and mark them as inferior. Both nurturance and the desire for and pursuit of beauty, which Bartky calls narcissism, typically become fi xed as fundamental aspects of the self very early in life. Thus, heterosexual women are made, and make themselves, complicit in hierarchies that systematically disadvantage them. Feminine narcissism, for example, on these grounds is rendered “infatuation with an inferiorized body” (40). Through such means, femininity becomes fundamentally an occasion for shame, which Bartky characterizes as “the distressed apprehension of the self as inadequate or diminished,” requiring “if not an actual audience . . . then an internalized audience with the capacity to judge me” (86). Bartky’s analysis reveals how “women . . . are made to feel shame in the major sites of social life. . . . [I]n the act of being shamed and in the feeling ashamed [it is] disclosed to women who they are and how they are faring within the domains they inhabit” (93). While moral philosophers have generally come to accept the “ontologically disclosive” nature of emotion, “constitut[ing] a primordial disclosure of self and world,” shame has been conceptualized primarily in cognitive terms (89). Yet Bartky demonstrates how shame as a condition of women’s subjectivity is not a cognitive attribute, but consists in socially imposed feelings of inadequacy which are likely to be in direct contrast to women’s conscious beliefs about themselves. As Bartky notes, “the corrosive character of shame . . . lies in part in the very failure of these feelings to attain to the status of belief” (95). This explains the functions of shame persisting over time, as opposed to other accounts that focus on particular instances of shame. Bartky concludes, “Under conditions of oppression, the oppressed must struggle not only against more visible disadvantages but against guilt and shame as well” (97). Clearly, Warner would concur. They successfully demonstrate that shame is connected to sexuality in multiple ways, and in particular ways in particular social locations, and moreover, that shame’s interference with sexual agency constitutes an interference with political agency.

Medical Discourse and Sexual Powerlessness
Earlier, I suggested that sexual agency crucially involves the social dimension of mutual recognition and respect of people’s sexual identities. The absence of this good for particular groups, then, constitutes a

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significant aspect of sexual powerlessness. People marginalized based on disability, sexuality, or both know all too well that one of the main cultural influences for the perception of some bodies as different, and ultimately morally degenerate, is medical discourse. I will briefly examine specific ways in which medical discourse neglects sexuality as an aspect of health, displays sexist and heterosexist values as well as a failure to address other aspects of social group difference, relies on ultimately conservative reproductive norms, focuses on the pathological at the expense of healthy states and processes, and conceptualizes the body and human life in biological terms abstracted from social relations. All of these failings not only reflect broader social values, but provide powerful reinforcements for them as well. Medicine is thus a major force in the social relations of sexual powerlessness, and the shaming which so often accompanies it. Nancy Mairs writes that throughout the many years she has lived with multiple sclerosis, “Not one of my doctors . . . has ever asked me about my sex life” (1996, 51). In general, many health care providers are unwilling or unable to interview patients and provide information about sexuality and related health concerns. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 1996 that “only 11% to 37% of primary care physicians routinely take a sexual history from their new adult patients” (Keen, 19). As a result, “doctors often fail to screen, diagnose, or treat important medical problems,” particularly in gay and lesbian patients (19), and in heterosexuals with disabilities as well, many of whom are not integrated into disability communities and may thus have no other source but their physicians for sexual information related to their conditions. Medical failure includes not only avoidance of sexually-related issues, but also research programs shaped in ways that harm people with disabilities. Barbara Faye Waxman identifies several aspects of “scientific indifference” to women’s sexuality in particular: a failure to address differences such as gender, sexuality, race, or class; inattention to disability as socially constructed; focus on men with spinal cord injuries, emphasizing the promotion or maintenance of “normal” penile erectile function, and excluding women and men with other disabilities; a focus on the pathological, reflecting “a societal view that disabled women are not whole women; rather, they are seen as defective women” (1996, 182); and finally, values associated with eugenics, and cultural fears about disabled people reproducing (181–3).8 These problematic medical concepts, omissions, and emphases both reflect and reinforce broader cultural values, such as notions of sexuality based on a normative heterosexual male perspective, a penis-centered, intercourse-based, goal-oriented view of sex. As Billy Golfus wryly notes in “Sex and the Single Gimp,”

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Everybody knows that the punch line is when Old Faithful goes off. That’s the point of chasing them in the fi rst place, isn’t it? Look, everybody’s been taught that sex is about put tab A in slot B. So what do you do when you can’t feel slot B? Forget it? If it’s not acrobatic and aerobic, then it’s not real sex. How big and how many times is what counts to most people. Then you don’t even have to feel much, just keep counting and measuring. (1997, 420)

Such notions deny the actual polymorphousness of human sexuality. Both men and women with spinal cord injuries, for example, report their experiences of a diffuse sensuality, including orgasms centered in earlobes, nipples, sensitive areas of the neck, and elsewhere (Panzarino 1994; Whipple, Richards, Tepper, and Komisaruk 1996); “portions of the body that retain feeling may become more highly eroticized than they were before injury” (Keller and Buchanan 1993, 229). If heterosexual vaginal intercourse is taken as the norm, the sexual practices of many will not seem to count as sex at all. Knowledge of diffuse male sexualities may be culturally suppressed, or even incomprehensible, because they are perceived as incompatible with masculinity, while for women such pleasures are perceived as outside the domain of legitimate heterosexual experiences. The repercussion for those with physical disabilities, like many others, may be silence and unintelligibility, their sexualities rendered incoherent, unrecognizable to others or perhaps even to themselves, a clear instance of cultural attitudes profoundly diminishing sexual agency and the sense of self and personal efficacy which are part of it. Moreover, sociobiological notions of sexual pleasure as an innate incentive to reproduce, rather than a legitimate and meaningful human need in itself, typically underlie medical notions of sexuality, contributing further to the unintelligibility of sexual desire and practice as many people experience it. These notions are particularly problematic for women. After author Suzanne Berger’s severe back injury, her doctor attempted to elicit her sexual concerns by asking brusquely, “So how are things with your husband” (1996, 61)? Such language inadvertently reveals the standard medical principle of subsuming women’s sexuality into that of their presumed male partners, a tendency which becomes even more pronounced for women with physical disabilities. This medical inability to address women as sexual subjects is also evident in a study of women with spinal cord injuries. Beverly Whipple and colleagues asked participants:
to comment on the extent and quality of their postinjury sexuality education by health professionals. The overall quality was considered poor. Generally included with information on bowel and bladder functioning, the materials that were distributed were of poor quality, outdated, and usually targeted

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for men. The focus of female sexuality education was on giving, rather than receiving, sexual pleasure and on reproductive issues, such as fertility and conception. (1996, 79)

Gynecologists are less likely to ask women with disabilities whether they are sexually active (Welner 1996, 81), and when they do, they are likely to assume heterosexuality (O’Toole 1996, 138), thereby failing to address the concerns of lesbians and bisexuals. In a National Institutes of Health study of women with disabilities, a number of participants reported that their physicians “did not know how their disabilities affected sexual functioning, said nothing at all, or provided inaccurate information” (Nosek 1996, 25). Such medical ignorance and negativity persist despite studies that suggest possibilities that are far more hopeful. In reviewing research on women with spinal cord injury, Beverly Whipple and her colleagues found that “most of the current literature is not concerned with whether women with spinal cord injury have any sexual desire or response” but with whether they can “’satisfy [a husband’s] needs’” (1996, 71). Yet their own work, based on the principles of participatory action research, yielded distinctly different results, providing evidence of greater genital sensitivity and capacity for orgasm than the literature suggested. Significantly, their study was based in part on participants’ self-stimulation, a methodology unlikely to be employed in more typical research shaped by male-centered norms. Whipple and colleagues found that after injury, women often experience a common “sexual trajectory” moving eventually from a period of “sexual disenfranchisement” to “sexual rediscovery” (79). Surely, it is clear that these problematic trends in medicine are strongly connected to broader cultural values, not merely by passively reflecting the culture that surrounds it. In part, medical discourse gains authority from biology, construed as largely independent of social relations, with specific consequences for people with disabilities. This medical epistemology views illness or disability as an individual organism’s departure from biological normalcy, rather than a condition which always develops in relation to a particular social context, the significance of which has been amply illustrated by the women’s health, AIDS, and disability rights movements. Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch note, “There is an assumption that disability is located solely in biology, and thus disability is accepted uncritically as an independent variable” (1993, 52). Medical discourse thus underpins social practices that marginalize people with disabilities, while presenting these social practices as the inevitable consequence of biology. One of the most important influences of medicine—and the reason it has received so much critical attention in disability studies—is its active

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shaping of cultural perceptions of disability identity itself, which thereby structures how the nondisabled interact with people with disabilities. Philosopher Eva Feder Kittay and her husband were struggling to come to terms with their infant daughter Sesha’s severe cognitive disability when they were sent to consult with a pediatric neurologist who told them “after a five-minute exam—that our daughter was severely to profoundly retarded and that we should consider having other children because ‘one rotten apple doesn’t spoil the barrel’” (1999, 6). Kittay’s writing suggests that what she and her husband needed was to begin to consider how they could help Sesha to develop the capacities she possessed that made her human, capable of affectionate relationships with her parents and others. Yet the neurologist’s remarks (which contained no new information about Sesha’s disability) made this crucial time all the more difficult for them. Kittay and her husband were able to resist the brutally insensitive suggestion that their daughter was disposable, less than fully human, and as Kittay points out, were fortunate to have a variety of resources, financial and otherwise, which aided them in not only recognizing but facilitating the development of their daughter’s personhood. How many parents of disabled children have neither the strength nor the resources to resist similar medical messages, with their ring of objective and even therapeutic truth? Medical dehumanization of disabled children can even contribute to parental violence against them. Dick Sobsey, primary researcher for the University of Alberta Abuse and Disability Project, writes, “Health care personnel . . . are usually among the first to discuss a child’s disability with the child’s family. Negative and discouraging attitudes on the part of the physician can interfere with the bonds between parents and their children, and in doing so, increase the child’s risk for abuse” (1994, 363). The social presumption that medicine apprehends the fundamental truths of disability is thus enormously damaging. Medical pathologization of disability, particularly as it manifests itself in negativism regarding the sexuality of people with disabilities, is thus a major contributor to the sexual powerlessness and shaming of members of this group.

Concluding Reflections: Counter-Discourses and Coalitions
Nancy Mairs, a self-described crip, writes, “The fact that the soundness of the body so often serves as a metaphor for moral health, its deterioration thus implying moral degeneracy, puts me and my kind in a quandary. How can I possibly be ‘good’?”—a statement of shame if ever there were one (1996, 57). It is, of course, medical discourse we usually turn to in order to decide which bodies are sound and even what bodily soundness is, and the reliability of this discourse is seldom questioned. Disability

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as presently constructed in the United States manifests itself as a central defining characteristic of a personhood that is rendered less than ideal (Gauthier 1983; Wilkerson 1998, 88–93). This lesser status appears to be incontestable because it is medically certified, with medical evidence regarded as utterly objective, detached from values, emotions, and particular human interests. Yet neither medical fatalism nor medical relegation of some to a lesser status or a life without sexuality is fully deterministic in the end, nor are other oppressive cultural norms. Alternative possibilities for politics and pleasures are being imagined and enacted individually and collectively. Often, it has been noted, after all, that being regarded as outside the norm gives one less stake in upholding it, particularly when it turns out to be punitive, unjust—or impossible. And when one experiences a break with the past, as in the case of those who are suddenly disabled, the loss of “how things used to be,” though undeniably traumatic, can sometimes open the door to new possibilities. For example, some (although not all) of the participants in Elle Becker’s early study of women with spinal cord injury report eventually becoming more sexually assertive after their injury, due to the need to actively reconstruct their sexual desires and practices, rather than passively enact what they have been led to expect of themselves and their partners (1978). Nondisabled women have much to learn from these responses to an extremely challenging circumstance, just as everyone can learn more from paraplegics and quadriplegics about the extensive possibilities of human sexualities that depart from heterocentric and phallocentric norms. If these arguments have been convincing, the political importance of overcoming shame will be quite clear. There are many ways to try to overcome or avoid shame, and perhaps one of the most common involves bids for respectability, but as Warner warns us, this strategy poses significant risks for queers. Perhaps respectability poses similar dangers for feminism. If the “official queer movement” is pursuing respectability through marriage and thereby solidifying the outsider status of those who don’t jump on the marriage bandwagon, national feminist organizations may be pursuing the same illusory and problematic goal when they defend “reproductive choice” as the right to avoid unwanted pregnancy, while failing to defend women’s right to sexual pleasure. Warner argues that an accessible sexual culture is necessary for sexual autonomy. Bartky warns of the harms to women of what might be called a patriarchal sexual monoculture. Their arguments suggest that we must attend to the material conditions which make it possible to access sexual culture and work to transform those which make it unimaginable. We must consider, for example, the war against terrorism upheld as protecting American lives and helping to liberate Afghan women, while they and other women are allowed to die all over the world in childbirth or

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from unsafe abortions. President Bush is currently withholding $34 million in congressionally approved funds to the United Nations Population Fund because of false allegations that the money could be used to promote abortions. This could jeopardize delivery of supplies to Afghan women, since the Fund provides “clean underwear, sanitary napkins, and sterile delivery kits—soap, a string, and a clean razor blade” (Cocco 2002). Overcoming shame and undermining the moral influence of medicine (which comes not only from direct pronouncements and omissions but also from its cultural status as a source of knowledge and order) will require the creation of powerful counter-discourses. One resource for these are the experiences of creating new pleasures which disabled people exemplify, or the specific forms of resistance to sexual vilification or victimization which other groups have demonstrated. This task of constructing counter-discourses has been central to the women’s health, disability rights, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), and AIDS movements. I believe it will become increasingly recognized as strategic for other social change movements as well, and must be understood as fundamental to the struggle for sexual democracy, which in turn must be recognized as a vital and necessary component of all struggles for democracy and inclusion. But in order for individuals and groups to succeed in fostering their own sexual agency, they must seek and in some measure gain others’ mutual recognition and respect, which are not primarily psychological or attitudinal, although attitudes are important; they are more broadly political. In other words, the success of counterdiscourses requires not only that they persuade others, but that they act in solidarity. Audre Lorde asked us to imagine “an army of one-breasted women descend[ing] upon Congress” (1980, 16). We might imagine diverse groups struggling together for sexual democracy. What if NWSA sat in with ADAPT at the American Medical Association for medical support for attendant services, enabling disabled women and men to live in their own communities rather than in nursing homes? What if the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) marched with PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays) to protest the firing of educators willing to answer young people’s questions about queer sexuality? What if a million mothers marched on Washington, DC to demand comprehensive sex education for all children? This dream of fighting for the sexual agency of oppressed groups requires us to think the unthinkable, to sacrifice comfort and abandon respectability to work for genuine inclusion. And perhaps the first step is to face the challenge of asking, when such coalitions have not materialized, why they have not, and to begin the hard work necessary to make them possible.

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Acknowledgements: Thanks to editor Kim Hall, anonymous readers for the NWSA Journal, and Roger Gottlieb for their many useful suggestions, as well as to audiences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville Gay and Lesbian Studies Conference, the Radical Philosophy Association, the Society for Disability Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, and Femininity and Domination Twelve Years Later: A Conference to Honor Sandra Bartky, where I presented somewhat different versions of this paper. Kudos to Shannon Wyss and other students in my sexualities seminar at George Washington University for lively discussion of issues in the section on Rubin’s work. More than anyone, Cindy Newcomer has consistently modeled for me a vision of the moral importance of sexual agency. I am deeply grateful to Bob McRuer and our other comrades in the Queer Theory and Disability Studies Groups at George Washington University, as well as Melissa Burchard, Cayo Gamber, Peg O’Connor, and Lisa Heldke, for their friendship and inspiration, which enriched this paper. As always, Patrick McGann’s support exceeds even his amazing insight and editing skills. Abby Wilkerson is a philosopher teaching in the Writing Program at George Washington University. Among her publications is the book Diagnosis: Difference: The Moral Authority of Medicine, a number of articles, and a guest-edited, special issue of GLQ with Robert McRuer, “Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies.”

Notes
1. See Wilkerson on the pathologization of homosexuality (1998, 44–8). 2. Many participants in Becker’s study (1978) encountered this problem. Also see Shin (2000). 3. The Comstock Act outlawed representations or objects considered “‘obscene, lewd, or lascivious,’” including all devices used for contraception or abortion (Freedman 1999, 157). 4. See Held (1993, 2557) and Hubbard (1997, 190) on the sterilization of disabled women, and Corea (1985), Davis (1981), Dreifus (1977), and Poirier (1990) on that of poor women and women of color. 5. Also see O’Bryan (2000) for an account of a conference organized by the Boston Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) which included a confidential workshop in which educators took questions about sexuality from queer youth. A right-wing organizer attended the session incognito, secretly taping it and then publicizing the content in print,

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on the radio, and at a Washington, DC press conference, replete with sensationalized commentary on the sexual practices mentioned. As a result, “one workshop facilitator has been fi red, another has resigned, [and] some state legislators have expressed a desire to curtail state funding of programs to help Gay youth” (28). 6. I speak of choice here in terms of interpreting and acting on one’s desires, regardless of whether those desires should themselves be considered voluntary in some sense. 7. See Sobsey (1994). Also see Wyss (2001), whose groundbreaking original study on high school experiences of gender-variant youth offers a chapter on violence and harassment by peers, as well as a brief overview of the literature on violence against queer youth. 8. Given that people seek medical remedies when they have specific physical complaints, it may seem unremarkable that the focus of medical practice tends to the pathological. However, what is worth examining is the larger picture in which the structure of Western medical knowledge is itself grounded in pathology (indeed, as Michel Foucault [1975] reminds us, modern Western medicine has its foundations in death, in the examination of corpses), what goes wrong in the body and how, rather than alternative frameworks which begin from a standpoint of health and how it is maintained, within and across particular social contexts.

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